In August I spoke at the major hearing aid conference of the year, the International Symposium on Auditory and Audiological Research. What struck me at this year’s meeting was the preponderance of talks on cognitive issues. Two years ago, there were less than a handful of people presenting at these conferences on cognition and hearing loss or hearing aids. Now, it’s starting to become a dominant topic at conferences, and I’m more often hearing from PhD students who are basing their dissertations in this broad area.
I’ve posted before on the emergence of cognition as a major theme in many areas. Earlier this month, I was at a conference on Aging and Speech Communication, where the focus was on how how changes to cognition and hearing from aging affect communication ability. Several research presentations made clear that older subjects are more distracted by irrelevant information and were less able to ignore this information than younger people. When conducting tasks on a computer screen, the older subjects were less able to do the task when there were many items on the screen, and benefited more than younger subjects did by a clean and simple graphical user interface. Similar findings occurred with other modes of information.
This kind of research has huge implications for companies producing products for the older crowd, targeting the aging population of America. Several social networks targeted at the aging population have sprung up (Boomj, where customers must be too old to be worried about the “bj” favicon; Eons, which has the trademarked search engine cRANKy), and Facebook has been invaded by the post-college crowd who probably find the interface a little busy. A company that develops an understanding of how different age groups process information will provide an advantage over competitors that think the only change that needs to be made to such networks is content: Taking a social network designed for younger people and adding an obituaries section and a place to post photos of grandkids isn’t going to cut it. Tools that measure visual clutter or screen complexity could likely identify sites doomed for failure among the older crowd.
Certainly, an understanding of the unique cognitive demands and capabilities of the older population will be necessary for businesses targeting that market. In any business with targeted customers types, I expect that companies will begin to hire cognitive scientists as consultants and employees as they seek to understand their customers better. While User Experience Designer is a hot role in companies today, we could see User Cognition Researcher as the hot position of the future.